FORT KNOX, Ky. – Three weeks into basic training, Pvt. Timothy Wilson pretended to be an enemy prisoner of war as other recruits camouflaged with green face paint detained and questioned him.
This drill in the wooded hills of Fort Knox in the past would have been saved for later in the soldiers’ careers.
But now that nearly half of all new soldiers go straight to Afghanistan, Iraq or to units preparing to deploy to war, the training is being overhauled for the first time in decades to immerse soldiers into the realities of modern warfare.
That includes training for fighting in city streets, detaining civilians and dealing with the threat of suicide bombers.
“This could be their only combat experience before they are in combat for real,” said Lt. Col. Jim Larsen of the 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, at Fort Knox, 40 miles southwest of Louisville.
The changes being tested in pilot programs at Fort Knox, Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Jackson, S.C., are part of a major shift taking place to update an Army basic training regimen that was based largely on the experiences of World War II and Vietnam.
“If you don’t train him in the correct tasks, he won’t react correctly and he’ll die, and that’s why we’ve got to shift in basic training to do that,” said Capt. Stu James of Wheeling, W.Va., who fought in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division and now trains new recruits at Fort Knox.
In the pilot program, recruits spend 23 days living in the field battling such obstacles as suicide bombers and roadside bombs in a mock operating base like those used in Iraq. Previously, recruits were just bused to the field for three days.
The new regime adds rigor to basic training with additional obstacles recruits must overcome. They include fighting while wearing body armor, going 24 hours without sleep, using heavy weapons, and lessons in the rules of engagement.
“Not that they’re going to be experts, but they’re inoculated to the sights and the sounds of combat, to the myriad of change that they are going to face,” said Col. James Greer, commander of the 1st Armor Training Brigade at Fort Knox.
The changes will likely affect mostly new soldiers in support areas – the cooks and mechanics who might not have received as much combat training as infantrymen before deploying, Greer said.
Previously, support troops generally were far from the front lines, but that is not true in Iraq where a supply clerk is just as likely as an infantryman to face a roadside bomb.
“Those soldiers really will be far more prepared than they are to execute their task and fight and survive,” Greer said.
The soldiers are taking the lessons seriously, said Capt. Theo Clemons, 32, of Canton, Miss.
“Now, it’s let me learn survival skills, this is what is going to keep me alive,” Clemons said.
Wilson, the private, said he watched a year’s worth of war coverage on television and joined the Army aware of the fact that he would probably go to war. That’s enough to make him and the others pay attention, he said.
“What we’re learning here is going to save our lives, most definitely, and more important, the lives of our buddies out there,” said Wilson, who is from Los Angeles.
Out in the backwoods at Fort Knox, Larsen looked on as new recruits talked to “enemy combatants” tied together in a holding area. The soldiers were surrounded by trees, not desert sand, but the lessons could one day help them thousands of miles away.
“Let them make the mistakes and then show them what the right way looks like,” Larsen said to a drill sergeant. “Let them learn.”
On the Net:
Fort Knox: http://www.knox.army.mil/